Epic draw leaves everyone a winner

 

ALL-IRELAND SENIOR HURLING FINAL:HENRY SHEFFLIN and Joe Canning must have tossed and turned last night. Above all players on the field, the two marksmen carried the hopes of their respective counties into this final. There were times during the second half yesterday when Shefflin looked intent on shaping the day as he set about eating into the Galway lead with a series of bullet-like frees and a sensational point in open play.

He went into this final sharing a winner’s medal tally of eight with the great Christy Ring, who departed the world a few months after Shefflin was born, and Tipperary folk hero John Doyle. One more All-Ireland win would place Shefflin in splendid isolation.

He came close and he played a terrific match, striking 0-12 over the afternoon.

Perhaps his last point, when he elected to fire a 68th minute penalty high over James Skehill’s crossbar, caused him a few moments of second-guessing last night.

A goal at that point would have unquestionably killed Galway’s spirit. There was a brief exchange of glances between the Ballyhale man and Brian Cody on the sideline and as he crouched over the ball, half of the crowd were expecting the eternal Kilkenny answer to thorny opposition: a goal laced with cruel timing.

The point was greeted with both gasp and cheer and the champions held a single-point lead.

“I shrugged my shoulders and said do whatever you think yourself, to be honest about it,” Brian Cody recalled of that moment.

“You can’t inspire Henry Shefflin over what to do with a penalty. He decides that himself. If he scored, he would have been a genius. If he missed, he would have been a lunatic. But we got a score, it was a vital score.”

It was and it was almost enough. For down the other end of the field, Joe Canning was being chased by All-Ireland demons, firing a 70th minute free that he must have landed a thousand times wide into the Hill End.

In those seconds, yet another day of Galway heartbreak was writ into the sky. They had defied general expectation here and yet the stripy men were still ahead and here now was Henry again, the ball in hand and not a maroon shirt nearby as he took a quick glance at the Davitt Stand posts and computed the requisite distance and fell into that unmistakable striking stance. Here, surely, now was the killer stroke delivered with a velvet touch.

Somehow, the shot drifted wide. Galway were not quite gone. They came again and Davy Glennon, the young substitute from Mullagh, hit the ground as he went bustling past Jackie Tyrrell. A free was whistled. Croke Park was agog. Near the sideline, Brian Cody was incandescent with indignation.

Canning trotted over: it wasn’t far from where he had missed two minutes earlier. Make no mistake: if the Portumna man had missed here, he would have carried it around with him for the rest of his life. The delivery was godly in its coolness: it was Shefflinesque. Level for the final time: 2-13 to 0-19.

“I saw it in a split-second,” Cody would say of that last crucial score.

“This game – we don’t have any excuses. We weren’t robbed in this game by a long shot. We don’t have any problem at all with the referee. I am sure I made several mistakes out there as well. And if he didn’t, he is some man. I am sure every Kilkenny person out there thought it wasn’t a free and every Galway person thought it was. The only thing that matters is that Barry Kelly thought it was a free.

“Look, there was 81,000 people there today and were roaring and fairly excited and surely to God the two managers of each team would be entitled to be fairly excited and not agree with everything as well.

“If that is a strange thing to see, then you haven’t been at too many hurling matches. It happens every weekend at club matches. Bit of excitement. No big deal. Shook hands at the end. Best of luck, Anthony, see ya in three weeks’ time.”

Riveting as the dead-ball battle was, the match was almost won by both teams in the coalface exchanges in back lines. Galway captain Fergal Moore was electrifying in the first half, sweeping across the lines and cleaning up ball. Johnny Coen, too, showed scant nerves, while Iarla Tannian, the big midfielder, was colossal throughout. There was craft and poise in every ball the Galway men played in the first half and they made the talisman of so many All-Ireland final days – JJ and Tommy Walsh – look deeply unhappy.

And yet, and yet . . . Kilkenny weren’t about to disappear. This was no Leinster final encore. There would be no blow out.

“They had turned the screw a bit,” Cunningham said of that period after half-time when Kilkenny men suddenly looked at home: Walsh honing in on impossible ball, Brian Hogan magisterial in the air, Paul Murphy superb in the last line and the points flying over with regularity.

“They were matching what we are doing in the first half.”

And more. Now, the young Galway defenders were hitting ball as if into some winter blizzard of troubled All-Ireland history: as hard as they could.

More often than not, it fell into a Kilkenny man’s palm. Somehow they manufactured a goal in the midst of the deluge: a smart ball in by Cyril Donnellan and a brilliant finish by Niall Burke.

Maybe that goal was the instant Cunningham’s young team – and the rest of the county – realised there was nothing pre-ordained about this day. Like everything else about the match, it confounded conventional wisdom.

When the teams had walked in the pre-match parade, Cody stood on the sideline, hands dug in his pocket and kicking at tufts of grass. He looked like a man waiting for a bus on a country road. The supposed fire and brimstone that was supposed to characterise the opening exchanges never materialised. It opened in almost mannerly fashion.

“People were expecting all sort of craziness and lunacy at the start of the game and there was none of it,” Cody remarked. “There was none of it. This talk that goes on is just . . . talk.”

Then came Canning’s goal: a thing of power and balance and beauty in the 10th minute. From then on, time seemed to speed up and they kept us guessing and riveted. And when we all caught breath, Kilkenny and Galway had in common the strange feeling that comes with doing it all again.

“It beats losing. It beats losing,” Cody conceded.

And Galway folk will sing that.

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